There was a neat piece in the Atlantic a little while ago about call centers using machines to semi-automate conversations. Rather than actually talking , the agent’s role is to select from a bank of pre-recorded statements, depending on the situation. They can also click the “laugh” button or the “exactly” button as required, in order to produce a “natural” conversation.
I think this is an excellent example of the kind of “abstraction” I have discussed in earlier posts. An additional layer of technological separation is being placed between two people. Rather than talking to another human being, the telemarketer uses a computer to direct an automatic voice to talk to a human being. Already, the telephone was adding a layer of mediation. But this takes that to an extreme, and changes the activity along the way. It’s a bit like one person is having a conversation while the other is playing a video game.
What this highlights is one of the important features of technology, and especially communication and information technologies. They ‘stretch out’ human interactions, and create new opportunities for rational control. Because this conversation is occuring via telephone, and because these dialogues have been recorded, marketers are able to use experimentation and rational analysis to create an ‘optimal’ sales pitch.
The obvious technological intrusion of the voice-automation obscures what I think is a more subtle, more troubling development: the transformation that has already occurred in the nature of the conversation itself. There’s a great line toward the end of the article where someone says that telemarketers who are reading off of scripts and trying to operate within specific time limits to meet their performance goals are “like robots already”. Fundamentally, it’s that fact that enables the automation. Data driven management and psychological research into the science of the sale had already produced a more or less optimal, more or less automatic, process. In other words the entire interaction between two people had already been broken down into a series of parts, and each part had been scrutinized to determine the “best” way to do it. The interaction was no longer an organic, human process – it was rather, for an expert telemarketer, a tactical exercise. The trick is to use the right technique at the right time in the right way.
Telemarketing, and marketing in general, is not the only place in our society that approaches conversation “tactically.” A huge part of psychology and counselling involves precisely selecting and implementing the right conversational tactic to achieve a desired outcome. The difference between talking to a friend about a problem and talking to a trained counsellor is, at least theoretically, that the counsellor is equipped with a set of techniques that they can use in order to help you. Political rhetoric is another obvious example.
Approaching a conversation tactically means approaching it at an abstract level. Rather than attending to the flow and the meaning of what is being said, the words themselves have been rendered routine, mere tools in the execution of a broader strategy to sell or persuade or convince. It’s the difference between “hi, how are you?” and <initiate greeting>. What’s remarkable about this telemarketing example is that much more complicated interactions, like “sales pitch” or “respond to key concerns” have equally been routinized and optimized.
As the Atlantic article highlights, this optimization is in an important sense progress. It yields better results more often and more efficiently. It’s much easier to re-write a script to be more optimal than it is to train hundreds of agents on a new “best practice”. The introduction of mediating technologies creates new opportunities for improvement and problem-solving.
But there is also something to our knee-jerk reaction, which finds the whole thing a little weird and a little alienating. It’s precisely the fact that I will be listening to an “optimized” sales pitch that I find so troubling. There is something tragic about the loss of the art of the sale. Travelling in the Middle East, I have had the experience of being sold to by many street vendors, one or two of human were masters of their craft. Their ability to connect with me personally, and then convert that relationship into a purchase, was amazing. Living in a world where prices are always listed and you might as well shop online, I found this a powerful, unsettling, and moving experience. I made the purchase, but I treasure the memory of that fleeting relationship. The telemarketing robot and the customized facebook ads, even if they respond effectively to my every wish and know my needs before I know them myself, contain none of this magic.
In other words, there is something about the immediate, the face-to-face and the unpredictable, that we intuitively value as human beings. The alienation I expect most people experience at the idea of a marketing-robot I think offers a crystalized version of this instinct. But as technology progresses, we place more and more mediating technologies between and around ourselves. We deliberately and systematically reduce immediacy, in order to also eliminate the messiness and “sub-optimality” that comes with it.
On balance, I’m not sure that I think this is either a good or a bad thing: technologies have transformed our social and political worlds before, and they will again. People find ways of preserving what matters to them while inventing new ways of being together. But I do think it’s important, in the age of Social Media, that we be aware that the introduction of mediating technologies opens the door to new systems of rationalization and optimization. That it encourages us, like the telemarketers, to increasingly substitute liking something for clicking like – replacing our ‘natural’ response for the technologically mediated performance of that response.